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Diktats and Handicaps

The cadres of the Politically Correct movement have issued a diktat banning handicap as a term for physical disability. Demonstrating remarkable etymological inventiveness, the PC inquisitors have ruled that the word has connotations of cap in hand.

For most of us, handicap prompts thoughts of gold or the Durban July, neither of which carries any suggestion of cringing obsequiousness. In their enthusiasm to purge the language, the PC police don’t know their anatomy from their linguistics. That’s why they have applied the handicap enema to their collective elbow.

For the word is not derives from the cap in hand but hand in the cap, eroded by time and usage to handicap. The OED defines handicap as a kind of sport having an element of chance in it, in which one person challenged some articles belonging to another, for which he offered something of his own in exchange.

A reference dating from 1855 explains that when the challenge was made, an umpire was chosen to decree the difference in value between the two articles and all three parties deposited forfeit money in a cap or a bag. The umpire seems to have been kind of min-19th century bookmaker.

When he announced the odds applying to the inferior item, the contestants withdrew their hands from the bag, either full or empty to indicate acceptance or non-acceptance of the challenge. If both agreed that the match was on, or both agreed that it was off, all the money was taken by the umpire/bookmaker. If they did not agree, the whole stake went to the player who wanted the match to stand.

The principle of hand in the cap has been around a long time, being described in the Piers Plowman text of 1362 under the name New Faire:

“Clement the cobbler cast off his cloak, for which Hikke the hackneyman wagered his hood, and Robin the roper was named as an umpire to ordain how much whoso haveth the hood should have amends in the cloak.”

Surprisingly, three centuries later the game was a novelty to Samuel Pepys although he appears to have got the hand of it pretty quickly. His diary for September 18, 1660 records: “Here some of us feel to handicap, a sport that I never knew before, which was very good.” Pepys would not have given PC house room. No other-abled or visual impairment for him, as his final diary entry shows: “For all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me.”

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